Louis Johnson New Writer's Bursary awarded to Claire Mabey, towards a children’s fantasy novel about ‘book magic’
23 May 2022
The annual Louis Johnson New Writer's Bursary provides a stipend that enables a published writer or playwright at an early stage of their career to create a new work. The 2022 Bursary has been awarded to Pōneke-based writer and literature festival director Claire Mabey, described by the panel as a 'tireless organiser and advocate for literature' and a writer of 'exceptionally high standard'.
We caught up with Claire to talk all things literature, her writing process and inspirations, the bursary, tarot cards, book magic, and more.
How did it feel when you were notified about being the recipient of the Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary? How did you celebrate the news?
I was shocked! I really couldn’t believe it and ended up in one of those overjoyed, thrilled crying situations. The strangest thing was feeling my characters jumping up and down beside me. I feel very obligated to them now! The Bursary is an incredible burst of faith. It’s given me a huge push to just do it and believe in the story. I’m very grateful and feel extremely lucky.
I had a celebration drink with my sister and my friend who is a writer and knows exactly how much this means to me. Then I had dinner with my nearly four-year-old and my partner. Pudding and all: Perfect.
The news has generated lots of positive support on social media – it must feel good to have the support of the literary community.
I love the literary community! They are the most generous, encouraging, generative, intelligent, creative bunch of people and I feel honoured every day to be a part of it. Their support is everything! There is no way I’d be at this point without them. Everybody works so hard and offers so much: it’s inspiring and energising to be around.
What will the bursary go towards?
It will go towards my writing time. For me, as a contractor, that means being able to not have to take on other work to make ends meet: I can treat writing as work which is a dream come true. Some of the bursary will also support a manuscript assessor to read my first draft and I imagine will ask me a lot of questions and offer a bunch of thoughts to help me move into the second draft. The children's fantasy novel I’m writing is for 8 - 12-year-olds and explores ‘book magic’ (although… I do struggle with that categorisation sometimes - I love reading Middle-Grade fiction and think that the best of them are the most brilliant stories for all ages. They have children at the heart of them, but adults feel like large children most of the time and we yearn for the same things: adventure, challenging what isn’t fair, we want something magical to happen to us, for the world to reveal itself, for danger at a safe distance… don’t we?).
Can you tell us more about ‘book magic’?
Book magic is a specific form of magic that has existed in literature and in art for a very long time, in various guises. I suppose you could think of the Spell Book as a cornerstone of book magic. It’s a physical object that can impart information in mysterious and profound ways and once received, that knowledge can catalyse change in the physical (and metaphysical) world. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the power of story and knowledge. I have created a form of book magic for this novel by imagining what it would have been like if the publishing regulations of the 16th Century were really formulated to control and exploit a specific form of magic that would otherwise completely upend the industry and its hierarchies … it’s a lot of fun!
When it comes to this children’s fantasy novel, what can we expect?
You can expect adventure, a journey, danger, magic, two very different but very brilliant central heroines, questions of faith, and an archery competition! The novel is essentially the story of how an unlikely friendship forms between two young women in the face of new knowledge about who they are and what they mean to the world and to each other.
Do you have any ideas for a title?
The working title is The Bookbinder’s Trouble.
Why children’s fantasy?
I didn’t really make a decision to write a children’s book: parts of the story and the characters arrived in front of me almost like they had been loitering around at the back of my mind waiting for me to notice. Those elements started to fill more and more of my mind as I paid attention to them. They grew and started to connect with each other and then they grew some more. The world and tone was so clearly a children’s fantasy that that’s what I’m doing. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I love reading children’s fiction so much.
For me, the books that I read between ages 7 - 16 were so incredibly important. They live in my mind and I know have influenced my life in significant ways. And children’s fiction has continued to be important to my internal life. Some of my favourite writers are children’s writers (Frances Hardinge, Philip Pullman, Anna James, Katherine Rundell, Margaret Mahy, Susan Cooper, Jonathan Strout) and sometimes all I’d like to do is just sit and read them indefinitely. I adore the escape, the emotion, the land and homescapes, the cinematic qualities, the endless frontiers.
To me children’s literature can say so much about our world and the problems with it, with the systems - sometimes more effectively than realistic, adult novels. They make room for us to access complex things by creating worlds that are fun to be in, that are strange but familiar, that can be ominous and cosy at the same time. I also love how the power dynamics shift completely. When you’re a child so many external forces control your time and your movements, but in children’s literature the power is with the young. Middle Grade books put their faith and weight into the capacities and capabilities of children. The challenges the young characters face are always monumental but the decisions they are able to make in the face of those obstacles give the stories that particular satisfying, triumphant thrill. I love being in that space and listening to my characters and what they want to do next.
Did your interest in Tarot have anything to do with the fantasy novel?
Yes and no. I am a dedicated Tarot user and recommend pulling cards if you’re feeling stuck and need to prod your mind into some fresh thinking! I have actually got a different novel sitting on the computer that does feature a special Tarot deck. But with this book, though they appear, it’s in oblique ways. I think there is something there, though, in the idea that symbols, archetypes and stories can shape your thoughts and ignite a kind of magic in the form of creative thinking / creative problem-solving.
You’re an amazing advocate for literature. What do you hope people/children will take from you book?
I hope that readers feel immersed and compelled to keep turning the pages until the very end. I hope they feel strongly about the characters, even love for them. I hope they look at books and at their own capacity as readers in new and exciting ways; and I hope they feel they have been on an adventure that has created a new space within them somehow… that they have changed, even just a tiny bit.
Can you give us a quick overview of your background?
I have been a reader forever: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love that feeling of being inside a book and oblivious to everything else. I also can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I have hundreds of files and a long shelf of journals. I’m a passionate person so I think that’s why I have always worked in the arts and mainly with books. I worked in publishing in Europe in my mid-20s, and for arts festivals across Aotearoa after that. With my partner Andy I founded Verb Wellington and LitCrawl Wellington, which has been an honour and a gigantic learning curve.
I’m the writers programme Manager for the Aotearoa New Zealand Arts Festival, another huge privilege. Over the last few years I’ve really tried to focus as much time as I can on writing and working at writing. The courses at the IIML have been extraordinarily good for that. The World Building course with Elizabeth Knox really set me off and gave me a huge shot of energy and excitement. The Short Stories course with William Brandt was just wonderful: short stories are SO hard, I think they are just astonishing if you can get it right (I haven’t yet). And I’m currently doing Harry Ricketts’ Creative Nonfiction course which is fantastic. I love writing nonfiction. It’s quite strange really. Children’s fantasy and creative nonfiction are most natural to me at this stage. I suppose that’s just the way it goes!
In terms of a writing background, I published quite a bit of poetry when I was younger. It’s weird looking at them now - I feel like a different person and yet remember exactly what it felt like to write them. More recently I came second in the Landfall essay competition with my essay about smoking in life and in art. I didn’t think it was any good which goes to show that you should just try anyway! It was a very big boost for my confidence to get that placing and has meant that I can bat away self-doubt a little more effectively. Doubt is still there but I’m learning that you can shut it in a cupboard and deny it any snacks.
What does your writing process look like?
I write at night a lot and on Saturday mornings. I work and am a mum so it is a bit of a whenever-I-can, I-do. But thanks to the gift of this Bursary I am blocking out great chunks of time so I can immerse myself in the story and get the words out. I can’t wait!
In terms of the how… I’m normally a chronic reviser-as-I-go but I’m trying a new approach: just write it and then go back once the first draft is done.
Which book has most had an impact on you personally and also on your work?
I think the answer must be Anne of Green Gables. I can see how some aspects of Anne are emerging in the qualities of one of my characters. The Anne books were so special to me growing up and I still think that Anne Shirley is one of the greatest characters of all time. She isn’t straightforward. Anne’s desires can at first appear simplistic but her life, daily and otherwise, becomes complicated by emotion, or surprises both good and bad, or by mistakes. Anne is a real person to me and there is definitely something magical about that.
What are you reading at the moment?
Kate De Goldi’s Eddy, Eddy
The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman
Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses
Do you have a favourite reading or writing spot?
Bed! I love reading in bed and I like writing in bed too. But since I can often be interrupted there I write mostly from a desk in a studio in town which I share with a bunch of the most phenomenal women. It’s a fantastic place to think and to work in a community of people who are compelled to make things.